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May 17, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (Tarcher/St. Martin's: $8.95). Olaf Stapledon is a stylish writer and ambitious guide, charting a history from the formation of the first stars and the beginning of Homo sapiens to our end on Neptune, the creation of a Galactic mind and the death of the last galaxy. Few Americans have taken Stapledon's grand literary tours, even though they are cited as seminal influences on writers of stellar reputations in the West, such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Ursula Le Guin. Stapledon's relative obscurity isn't surprising, though, for rather than simply describing the scene outside the window, he looks at how we see the scene; how, more broadly, we respond to knowledge: "The stars wanly trembled above the street lamps. Great suns? Or feeble sparks in the night sky? Lights at least to steer by, and to beckon the mind from the terrestrial flurry, but piercing the heart with their cold spheres."

But the cold light of the stars, "in which even the dearest love is frostily assessed," need not prove paralyzing, for we are given a chance to "play some part in this struggle, this brief effort of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness." In "Star Maker," first published in 1937, Stapledon took a pioneering step toward fashioning a faith out of secular beliefs that were beginning to ring hollow: "Man's science was a mere mist of numbers; his philosophy but a fog of words."

Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America, Ellen K. Rothman (Harvard: $8.95). Popular wisdom has it that the sexual revolution in the '60s dramatically transformed American social attitudes. The change might not be as marked as we think, argues Ellen Rothman, a visiting scholar at Wellesley College. Her conclusion is unlikely to surprise Americans following Gary Hart's demise as a presidential contender, which proves that our nation's sensitivity to social propriety is far from flagging. Still, drawing on diaries, letters and autobiographies written from 1770 to 1920, Rothman does away with some of our preconceptions about backwardness in the 19th Century--the graduate of a ladies' seminary, for instance, had just as much trepidation about submerging her identity as any newly minted MBA--while confirming others: President Rutherford Hayes' wife looks fondly at a picture in which she displays "a meek, subdued air" while next to her husband.

Slaves of New York, Tama Janowitz (Washington Square Press: $6.95). Fred, the protagonist of one of these hip, funny tales, gets his kicks taking strange women to Tiffany's and offering them the run of the store, pretending to be a millionaire. When Fred tries to determine the motivation behind this behavior--the key event that shaped his life--he draws a blank. "He'd never had a key event," Tama Janowitz writes, "Maybe he'd never had any events." Fred is one of many rootless, confused characters affectionately described in these pages, for loss of self is not, as Janowitz sees it, a serious character flaw. Initially, we feel the same way. Pleasantly distracted by Janowitz' solid sense of humor, we don't notice that her characters' spiritual quest is largely for show: We meet a Marxist prostitute, for example, who works for a pimp with "a double Ph.D. in Philosophy and American Literature," but the credentials are cited rather than examined, making the characters bizarre but unbelievable.

The characters keep their rebellion on the surface as well. A woman dies her hair green, for instance. One character offhandedly mentions the death of her close girlfriend, another makes cheese fondue, sets some aside for her boyfriend, and starts to cry, managing to give us only one line of explanation: "It's hard to be nearly 30 and so unlovable." Janowitz never gives her characters momentary shelter from the frenzy, as Jay McInerny does, for example, in "Bright Lights, Big City." Still, this book is resoundingly successful as a comedic look at a culture of painters, performance artists, jewelry dealers and other urbanites.

Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire's History of the Sixties, edited by Harold Hayes (Crown: $12.95). "I was close enough to issue invitations in his name," says Patrick Anderson, a contributor to this collection and formerly a junior aide to Robert Kennedy, "but not close enough to be sure he remembered my name, close enough to see the bickering in his office, but not close enough to see the grand designs in his mind." Incorporating novelists trained as intimate observers and journalists savvy about spotting trends--in the 1960s, a rather revolutionary mix--"Esquire" was, like Anderson, sensitized to the personal drama, though a few steps removed from the policy-making. As Harold Hayes, the magazine's former editor, writes in the introduction to this book, the magazine avoided "doctrinaire" articles, beginning with "an effort toward a rational view, then satire and then irony."

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